Leeds United and second season syndrome – too early to judge

LEEDS United were soundly beaten by Liverpool at Elland Road in their fourth Premier League game of the season. After four games, they have yet to click into gear and Premier watchers are wondering if Marcelo Bielsa’s team are suffering from second season syndrome, much as Sheffield United did in 2020-21.

Leeds haven’t had the easiest of starts to the campaign, Manchester United away, Liverpool at home and tricky games with Everton and Burnley. Leeds, typically, have enjoyed an average of 57% of possession across their four games, versus 43% for the opposition. They’ve averaged 12 shots per game, but only 27% of these have been on target, hence they are averaging a goal a game. By contrast, their opponents have had an average of almost 19 per game, with 37% on target, which translates into goals conceded 2.75 per game.  

Last season they had to face Liverpool and Manchester City in their first four games, losing 4-3 and drawing 1-1 respectively. Leeds have scored half as many goals as they did in the first four in 2020-21 and have conceded three more goals.

Leeds finished 2020-21 well with one defeat in 10, fuelling optimism for the current season. Only six clubs had a worse goal against record than Leeds (54 conceded) but they scored more goals than fourth-placed Chelsea (62 versus 58). They spent around £ 50 million to strengthen their squad in the close season, but the club’s director of football has said the second season is harder for promoted clubs.

Certainly it is difficult to see Leeds closing the gap on the teams that ended 2020-21 above them. Already there are signs that they may have to settle for consolidation, year two. Bielsa’s style is praised by fans and pundits alike, and the Elland Road faithful passionately defend the man on the bucket from every criticism. The question is can Bielsa make Leeds successful or will they be satisfied with the sort of status that Ron Greenwood’s West Ham had in the 1960s and early 1970s – great to watch but infuriatingly inconsistent?

Second season syndrome is something that afflicts team that have over-performed in their first year after promotion. Sheffield United were blighted by it in 2020-21 and in the past, Reading (promoted 2005-06), Ipswich Town (1999-00) and Middlesbrough (1994-95) all made a splash and sunk in year two.

Way back in football history, some promoted teams have had a roller-coaster ride after winning their place in the top flight. For Example, in 1960-61, Ipswich won the second division and a year later, the league championship. A year later they finished 17th and in 1963-64, they went down again.

Success after promotion can be attributed to a number of factors. Money, of course, comes into it, but the element of the unexpected, lots of adrenalin and enthusiasm, innovative tactics and talented management are every bit as important. Take Nottingham Forest in 1977-78, who were managed by the legendary Brian Clough. Forest took the third promotion place in 1977 and then won the league with a team of unlikely heroes. That Ipswich team, managed by Alf Ramsey in his pre-England days, also applied different methods to take the first division by surprise.

Often, it works for just a limited period, hence a team that has something different can steal a march for a year, but then gets “found out” and struggles to maintain momentum. Crystal Palace, in 1979-80, started impressively and topped the table in the early weeks of the season. Likewise, Sheffield United in 1971 were leading the way for much of the autumn before burning-out and finishing 10th.

The average first-year position of the clubs promoted to the Premier over the past five years has been 15th. Leeds managed ninth in 2020-21, a position bettered only by Wolves in 2018-19. Prior to that, Birmingham reached ninth in 2009-10.

People point to Leeds United’s wayward defence and Bielsa’s somewhat cavalier approach to his back line as reasons why Leeds will not move beyond their current status. There will come a time when the club’s management will demand tangible success, in other words, a trophy. At present, Leeds are happy to be back and the Premier is equally pleased to have them back – they are a sizeable club, after all. But if the next step is moving from highly-praised also-rans to contenders, then they have to be set-up differently to avoid regular emphatic defeats.

It is early days, and the fixtures haven’t been the kindest to Leeds, but at some point, they will have to demonstrate they are building on what’s been achieved in the past few years.

@GameofthePeople

Photo: ALAMY

The Leeds United way – delight or disaster?

LEEDS UNITED conceded another six goals against Manchester United, taking their season total to 30, the highest in the Premier League. Life is never dull in Leeds games, in fact, their game at Old Trafford was real end-to-end stuff, but are Leeds’ fans really enjoying their time back in the top flight? The neutrals surely are, hence commentators are urging Leeds “not to change”, but is the Bielsa way heading for relegation or, at best, a fight against the dreaded drop?

There is something very patronising about the way people talk about Leeds. Everyone insists  Bielsa is a “great coach”, “cult figure” and “South American icon” but most people in the United Kingdom had not heard of the Argentinian before he came to England. Now, the narrative is focused around how his teams play open attacking football and hence, their games are full of goals. The media are fascinated about every Bielsa detail, be it the way he sits on a bucket, the fact he has a translator, and his liking for a beverage while watching the game. The cynic might suggest that if it was anyone else (and we’re not getting all Klopp v Mourinho here) they would get criticised for having quirky ways.

There’s no doubt Leeds are good to watch at times, but they also leave you pulling your hair out. This type of football will probably not be successful in the Premier, but hey, it’s Bielsa, he’s a cool character.

Leeds’ history is also brought into the conversation, with comparisons being made between the club’s Revie-era team and the current crop. Leeds are, apparently, a popular club today around England, but they were “the most hated in the land in the 1970s”. Before I leap to Leeds’ defence, I would add I am a Chelsea fan and watched the 1970 FA Cup final games and Leeds were definitely the enemy – but we respected them.

However, most of Leeds’ serious misdemeanours occurred before 1970 when they returned to the first division. They matured. Leeds were a tough side, but in that period, every team had hard men: Arsenal had Peter Storey, Liverpool had Tommy Smith, Chelsea had Chopper Harris, Leeds had Billy Bremner, Norman Hunter and Johnny Giles, who could all mix it. Let’s not forget that in the so-called roughest game of all time (Chelsea v Leeds 1970 FA Cup final replay), both teams were, quite simply, filthy dirty.

Yes, Leeds were a robust bunch at times, but they developed into a fine footballing team that could be quite brilliant. A lot of people refused to forgive them for some of their rough-arm tactics in the late 1960s.

Right now, some experts are talking up Leeds’ brand of football (doubtless someone has called it “Bielsa Ball”) and its entertainment value. Back in the 1970s, commentators used to eulogise about West Ham’s football and Ron Greenwood’s purist (and often naïve) style. West Ham were good to watch, but success was fleeting and they were often embroiled in relegation struggles. They could be a soft touch over the course of a league season.

Leeds 2020 are looking a fragile team that can either be excellent or visibly lacking in savvy. In their 14 league games, they have conceded three or more goals six times. If they are going to avoid being dragged down the table, they must win more than they lose. Their defeat at Old Trafford, against a United team that still fails to convince against good opponents, raises question marks about prospects. Leeds have already brought something different to the Premier League, but they have got to be careful.

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Photo: PA Images

Will Leeds be the next member of the uber-rich?

IF ALL goes to plan, Leeds United should soon be benefitting from a big cash injection from Qatar Sports Investments (QSI), the people who have made Paris Saint-Germain one of Europe’s wealthiest and high-profile clubs.

The news has had a mixed reception, Qatar’s human rights record has been pointed out, along with the morality of inflated investment in football as a tool to enhance reputations, the practice of “sports washing”. However, others are enthused by the prospect of Leeds United joining the band of clubs that form the new European elite.

If there’s a club currently outside the Premier League that could make a quantum leap, it is surely Leeds. There are smaller clubs in the top flight and Leeds have enormous support and traction. Furthermore, Leeds is the eighth biggest city in Britain by population (790,000) and has the fourth highest gross added value and has been ranked the third best city for business outside of London. It has the largest financial services community outside the capital and contributes £ 66.5 billion in economic output. It also has a branch of Harvey Nichols, a sign of gentrification and a growing middle class.

QSI has long been casting envious glances across at the Premier League. Their investment in PSG has yielded countless domestic trophies, but the “project” is aimed at European domination. Basically, Ligue 1 success is all too easy for a club with a budget that dwarfs every other club’s wage bill in France. It cannot be too satisfying for PSG’s owners to see their investment cast in the role of “flat-track-bullies” week-in, week-out. Neymar, their trophy signing when they outbid every other club in the ultimate soft power-play, has not proved to be the man they thought they’d signed and he wants to go to a more glamorous environment.

So the Premier League offers a chance to join the big football gravy train that is popular the world over. With English football already embracing owners from similarly debatable locations, as well as morally-bankrupt industry sectors, QSI may find it relatively easy to make their mark and spend their petro-dollars. It may even help with Qatar’s 2022 World Cup, which is struggling to win people over. If Leeds do not win promotion this season, it is reasonable to assume that QSI will provide the financial impetus to fulfil that goal. Anyone doubting that will soon be put right as star names start arriving in West Yorkshire.

But Leeds United, with or without QSI money, are going well at the moment, although there is talk of their current wage bill being unsustainable. In 2017-18, their wages amounted to £ 31 million, but they are said to be around £ 40 million at the moment.

The club enjoys excellent attendances at Elland Road, their average this season is in excess of 35,000, equating to a stadium utilisation rate of 93%. Leeds want to increase the capacity to 50,000 but this would only take place if the club achieves Premier League status.

Terry Cooper scoring for Leeds United during the League Cup final against Arsenal at Wembley, 1967-68.

Leeds have been in a good position to secure a Premier League place since Marco Bielsa became coach. For a while last season, they looked near-certainties to win promotion and this season, they are in the top three. Bielsa has become something of a cult figure, but Leeds fans will be only too aware that this is a manager who doesn’t stay anywhere for too long. At Lille he was in charge for seven months, at Marseille 15 months. He’s been at Leeds for 17 months. Bielsa has the track record and presence to fit the bill of an owner like QSI, although it is not hard to imagine them being seduced by the prospect of hiring a Mourinho or Wenger-type manager.

The fact that Leeds United is an attractive investment proposition says a lot about the club’s current status and underlines that they have come a long way since tipping into League One and suffering a period of bizarre ownership under Massimo Cellino. Current owner Andrea Radrizzani bought the club for £ 45 million from Cellino in 2017. A spokesman for QSI said: “It’s an opportunity, it’s interesting and it’s a big name in English football that we can help develop and bring back; a very beautiful brand with which we can recreate a story.”

QSI values Leeds at between £ 50 and £ 70 million, but Radrizzani may want close to £ 100 million for the club. He has spent around £ 65 million of his own money on buying the club and Elland Road. PSG cost QSI € 70 million and today the club is worth up to € 1.4 billion. If they were to sell the French champions, QSI would make a substantial profit on their outlay, although total expenditure has obviously been a lot higher than the purchase price.

QSI apparently wants to accelerate negotiations, possibly fearing that if the club was to gain promotion at the end of the season, the asking price will undoubtedly increase given the huge rise in revenues that can be anticipated from Premier League status. Leeds’ revenues in 2017-18, their last reported accounts, totalled £ 41 million.

Ever since the 1970s, Leeds have hankered for a return to their golden era, although they were the last pre-Premier Football League champions and then assembled an expensive collection of star names in the late 1990s, a period that proved to be financially catastrophic. Like many clubs, Leeds got left behind in the modern era – their last Premier season was 2004-05 – but the arrival of QSI on the scene will undoubtedly be transformational. There will be moral issues to deal with and separating football from those will be difficult, despite the insistence of those that claim there is clear blue water between the two. That’s a problem for Leeds and their fans to deal with. If it comes off, we can expect a familiar old name to be added to the first class lounge in the Premier League. Some will certainly welcome the return of Leeds if only because of the intensity of their historic rivalry.

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Photos: PA